The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) has endorsed the Public Service Commission’s (PSC’s) call for a ban on government employees conducting private business.

At present, government employees simply have to declare their financial interests and state when a conflict of interests exists, but even this limited system of control is honoured more often in the breach than otherwise.

Cosatu spokesman Patrick Craven said the PSC’s view — expressed by its director-general Prof Richard Levin during a parliamentary briefing this week — was consistent with Cosatu’s demand that public servants must choose either to serve the public or go into private business but never the two at the same time.

"The same rule must apply to elected public political leaders at municipal, provincial and national level. This call extends to union and civil society leaders," Mr Craven said. Cosatu urged government "to act without delay" on the PSC recommendations.

"The spread of the cancer of corruption and the theft of public funds threatens to destroy the foundations of our democracy. Money that is supposed to be providing services to the communities is being siphoned off into the pockets of a greedy elite," Mr Craven said. He said the situation of government employees conducting businesses which contracted with government seemed to be "particularly bad" in the Eastern Cape where auditor-general Terence Nombembe found in his 2010-11 provincial audit that 698 contract awards, amounting to R978m, were made to public servants or their relatives.

"The federation also endorses Prof Levin’s proposals for lifestyle audits of key staff be undertaken as well as audits into the indebtedness of employees, that investigative capacity needed to be strengthened and that policies on whistle-blowing and access to information needed to be developed and implemented," Mr Craven said.

The Democratic Alliance’s spokesman for the public service, Kobus Marais, called for stronger state action against corruption saying that many departments lacked minimum anti-corruption capabilities and there was little systematic monitoring of it.